February 4, 2009

This word is tossed around a great deal in relation to writing, but what does it actually mean? In prose terms, not in film? It means creating the most complete world for your stories and characters, so that the reader can fully enter it and experience it.

How does one do it? There are as many ways to develop a story as there are writers to write it. However, there are two primary approaches: Before and After.

If you fall into the “Before” category, you sit down before your officially begin your novel or story and write about it. The horrid term “pre-writing” is often applied to this process. We’re writers, we’re supposed to know how to use words. Either we’re writing or we’re not – there’s no “pre” involved. What you’re doing is developing the piece so that when you sit down to actually write it, you don’t worry about facing a blank page. How much development you do before you sit down and write is up to you, and will probably change from piece to piece. You take your starting point, whether it’s character or setting or plot, and build the other elements around it. You make notes of scenes, plot points, back story, setting, and possibly even scraps of dialogue.

When you’re on deadline, or juggling numerous projects, this is an efficient way to work. When you’re on deadline, every moment counts. You don’t have time to stare at a blank page. That’s true when you’re juggling multiple projects, too, but the added bonus of prior development while working on multiple projects is that you won’t forget where you are or where you’re going as you switch from project to project, and, most importantly, you won’t use the individual voice and rhythm of the project when you switch.

The pitfall is getting trapped within your original notes. Early drafts are for experimentation and tangents. Some of the bits that work best will be the ones that appeared in a flash of inspiration during the writing process.

Sometimes, you get an idea and you don’t develop it beforehand. You sit down and write and write and write and write until you fall off your chair and your fingers feel as though they’re permanently curled. When a piece flows, go with it. Don’t worry about going back to fill in bits. You develop it after.

What does that mean? It means putting the finished – not a partial, but a completed draft – away from anywhere from two weeks to two months and working on something completely different. That is the only way to can approach it with an objective enough eye to read it and edit it as though someone else wrote it. If you jump immediately into edits, you’re too close to the material and you will continue to make the same mistakes you did in the first draft and not catch problems.

Once you’ve gotten some distance from the work, you sit down and read it all the way through without interruption. Take notes, but DO NOT start to rewrite then and there. Just take notes, as though you were a Trusted Reader providing a colleague with a critique.

Mull over your notes for awhile, and let the revisions formulate in your brain. Percolation time is just as important for writers as the time spent on the page. Then decide how you want to proceed with development. You don’t HAVE to sit down and start with page one and work your way through. There are literally thousands of exercises out there to unlock character, plot, setting, back story, etc. You can work on the aspects you feel are the weakest first, add scenes, delete scenes, rearrange.

In her book WRITE AWAY!, Elizabeth George talks about the way a book feels as she works on it. It’s true. The more you write, the more you hone your craft, the more you will feel what works and what doesn’t. It’s not egotistical to know that an element of your book works. What you have to make sure is that you have the distance to know what truly works and what is simply an attachment.

Eventually, you will have to start at page one and work your way through the entire book. But each book will dictate its own creation process. Don’t get locked in to a single way of working. Listen to the needs of the book and respond accordingly.

Devon Ellington


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